Marci Warhaft is the woman behind Fit vs. Fiction, a campaign to reach out to other young men and women, as well as children, and help dispel the myths surrounding body image and the health and emotional problems that correspond with it. She holds in-depth group seminars and one-on-one counseling sessions to help people understand the difference between what they see in the world around them and what the reality is. Marci’s many years of experience in the fitness industry led her to develop Fit vs. Fiction, which helps her take her message to schools to reach children and discuss with them what it really means to “eat right and exercise,” as opposed to what kids are learning from the media. We were able to touch base with Marci and get her opinion on the self-esteem and body-image issues our children as young as 5 years old are facing, some tips for how to deal as a parent, some signs for what to watch for, and advice on how we can all live with a healthier perception of ourselves. You can learn more about Marci at www.fitvsfiction.com, and you can also check out her book: “The Body Image Survival Guide for Parents: Helping Toddlers, Tweens, and Teens Thrive.”
TestCountry: Marci, thanks for taking the time to speak with us. I am really enjoying reading through your Fit vs. Fiction website, and it seems like you are doing some really great work regarding helping our kids develop a healthy body image. I found the posters you have available for download to be particularly powerful. Can you describe for our readers how younger and younger children are being affected by unhealthy body image? I think most people first think about young women when they think of body image, and I know I was surprised by some of the statistics you had listed for kids only in Elementary School.
Marci : Body image and eating disorder issues are still often thought of as a “Teen girl” thing, when in reality girls and boys as young as five years old are struggling with feelings of self-hatred and low self-esteem when it comes to their appearance and these feelings of inadequacy can be lifelong if not dealt with as early as possible.
A 2009 study by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality showed that hospitalizations for eating disorders in children under 12 years of age increased by a whopping 119% between 1999-2000. We have become a fat-phobic society and one that puts an enormous amount of importance on things like appearance and image. In 1970, the average age when females started dieting was 14. By 1990, the average age had dropped to 8 years old. Before we can even begin to solve this problem, we need to acknowledge that it exists and too many people still underestimate the seriousness of body image disorders.
TestCountry: Adding to that question, why is this problem affecting children of such young ages? Where does it come from, and what kind of confusing messages are we receiving from the media?
Marci: Unfortunately, the negative messages that are being thrown at our kids on a daily basis regarding their appearance are coming from numerous places. Some of these messages are coming from the media and society as a whole, while others are coming right from inside their homes. It’s estimated that by the time a girl is 17 years old she’s seen approximately 250,000 messages from the media telling her she’s just not good enough. It seems like you can’t flip open a magazine or turn on the TV without being inundated with images of impossibly beautiful, seemingly flawless women. As a result, so many young girls feel like they just don’t measure up and become desperate to change the way they look, even at the risk of damaging their health through risky weight loss behaviors. The same goes for the boys. I hear from boys as young as nine years old who are completely ashamed of their bodies because they don’t have the chiseled abs or bulging bicep muscles they see on actors on tv or at the movies. What these kids don’t usually realize is that 100% of the images they see in magazines have been edited through things like photoshop and airbrushing and that it’s common for “teen” characters on television shows to be played by actors in their 20s and even 30s! They need to understand that comparing their healthy tween and teen bodies to those of grown adults is a horrible waste of time and energy.
What can be even more damaging; however, are the negative messages that may be coming from friends or family members. As parents, it is crucial that we make sure our homes are full of unconditional love and acceptance. We want our kids to grow up understanding that WHO they are is more important than how they LOOK and that fit, healthy bodies can come in many different shapes and sizes.
TestCountry: One of your specialties seems to be going into schools and talking directly with kids. Do you find this approach effective?
Marci: I absolutely LOVE bringing my Fit vs Fiction workshops into schools and speaking directly with kids because they have so much to share when given the chance to do so. I find that by sharing my story, I’m giving them a safe, supportive place to share their own. I don’t believe in speaking AT kids, but much prefer to speak WITH them since the best way we can help our kids is to first LISTEN to what they’re feeling and thinking. My workshops are filled with stories, pictures, and games that break down all the dangerous myths related to the beauty, fitness and fashion industries and help the students understand the motivation behind their messages and start challenging what they’re being told.
TestCountry: One of the parents on your website commented that this icebreaker helps them to continue the discussion at home. Why is this conversation a hard one to bring up at home?
Marci: There are a lot of reasons why parents might be afraid or uncomfortable to bring up this topic at home. Many parents are struggling with their own weight or food issues and are completely unprepared for how to deal with whatever questions might come up during a conversation. Other parents are afraid that talking about body image might create a problem that hadn’t previously existed. What parents need to know is that this is a topic that needs to be discussed openly and honestly. What’s great about my workshops is that oftentimes, the kids will go home and bring up something that they saw or heard during the presentation, which is a perfect way to get the conversation going. The discussion shouldn’t be overly serious or intense. A few great conversation starters could be:
TestCountry: Your “Survival Guide” book for parents describes how to make sure our kids are getting healthy messages in the home. Can you describe some tips for our readers to start taking positive steps in their own homes that they maybe haven’t thought of?
Marci: My biggest advice for parents when it comes to creating a healthy environment at home is to make the home a “Fat-Talk Free” zone. It’s amazing when you realize how difficult it can be for some people to go an entire day without mentioning their weight or the weight of other people. Many people find it equally as challenging to eat a meal without referring to its fat or calorie content. This has to STOP. Your guests should understand that there will be no diet-related chitchat around your kids. Ever.
Another tip is to get rid of any fashion magazines you may have to lie around your house and replace them with photo albums filled with pictures of friends and family. The more diversity your children see when it comes to the people around them, the easier it will be for them to understand that they don’t live in a one-size-fits-all kind of world and that being unique and different is what makes us special.
TestCountry: What are some warning signs of dangerous behavior that parents should watch out for?
Marci: Sometimes it’s easy for parents to know when their child is going through something challenging, but there are plenty of times when serious body image anxieties can go unnoticed. If neglected for long enough, these behaviors can lead to substance abuse, which is why parents play a role in drug prevention. In my book, I mention a few things to look for:
Psychological, Behavioral changes:
It’s important to note that these are just some of the possible signs to look for. It’s incredibly important that parents trust their instincts. If they feel that something is just not right with their child, they need to investigate further.
TestCountry: Not only are some schools beginning to cut physical education programs due to budget restraints but the P.E. programs that do exist don’t always offer the most constructive health advice. Would you recommend altering public school curriculum to include a more comprehensive health education program? If you could design such a program, what changes would you make?
Marci: I am a firm believer in the importance of physical activity. I am incredibly disappointed with how for some schools, physical education has become something that’s done only when/if there’s time. Gym class has become more of an afterthought than a necessity and that is proving dangerous when it comes to the overall health of our kids. Our children need to learn that being active is FUN. Exercise should not be seen as something negative we do to change our bodies, but something positive we do to celebrate them. When a child is active, it can also take some of the pressure off of their diet when it comes to living a healthy lifestyle. Some schools get so focused on getting rid of “junk food” that they end up creating fear around food. Kids start questioning everything bite of food they put in their mouths. For some kids, food can bring on feelings of shame which can lead them down a path of hiding or hoarding food.
Any instruction on food should be positive. We don’t need to talk about how bad a cookie is in order to explain how good an apple is, for example. We should encourage students to try new foods and to keep the focus on health instead of weight. It’s never a good idea to say that eating too many cookies will make you fat when a better choice would be to explain the nutrients and vitamins that our bodies require and how by feeding our bodies what they need we can be stronger, healthier and have more energy.
Physical activity should be a DAILY requirement. It can be as simple as letting the kids run around with a ball for 30 minutes. The point is, if schools send kids the message that gym is not all that important, they will carry that message into their adult years and their health will suffer for it.
TestCountry: While I think we can all agree that happiness isn’t measured in pounds, how do you draw a line between developing a healthy mind and body image and also making sure your kids have a healthy physical body?
Marci: Self-worth isn’t measured in pounds, means that we are no less deserving of love and respect from ourselves or from other people regardless of what we weigh. It’s because we respect ourselves that we should want to treat ourselves with as much kindness as possible and that means living a healthy lifestyle. Our fitness goals shouldn’t be about fitting into skinny jeans or a string bikini but should be about FEELING strong and healthy. We need to get our kids involved in activities that help them appreciate the amazing things their bodies can DO, so they won’t become preoccupied with how they look. We need to be good role models for our kids and let them see us treating ourselves with the same kind of kindness and respect we want them to feel for themselves. Make healthy living FUN. Shop for food together, look for new recipes together and get active together. If we make positive choices as a family, we increase the chances of sticking to them.
TestCountry: Do you have any suggestions for positive steps we can all take in our daily life to live with a healthier body image?
Marci: Incredible things happen when we can stop comparing ourselves to other people, or even younger, thinner versions of ourselves. We need to think about all the things our bodies do throughout the day and start appreciating it more while judging it less. Life is not a spectator sport. We can’t let things like fear, insecurity or a lack of time or money; keep us from getting in the game. We need to play more and stress less. We are never too young or too old to get healthy!
You can learn more about Marci at www.fitvsfiction.com, and you can also check out her book: “The Body Image Survival Guide for Parents: Helping Toddlers, Tweens, and Teens Thrive.”